A Blow To The Head

Going to the start of the 2016 Head of the River Race in benign conditions.

24 March 2017

Tim Koch reports disappointing news:

The organisers of the Head of the River Race (HoRR), the time trail for men’s eights run over the Mortlake to Putney course on London’s River Thames most of the last ninety-one years, has put out the following announcement on @EightsHead today, 24 March, 24 hours before the 2017 Race was due to start:

The Committee have been monitoring the weather forecast over the last few days and due to the strength and direction of the wind and in light of the difficulties encountered at yesterday’s Schools Head, we have reluctantly taken the decision to cancel this year’s race on the safety grounds. We recognise and understand the disappointment that this will cause for all competitors and others due to be involved in the race, however safety simply must come first.

Shortly before the star of the Schools Head on 23 March, the course was cut from the full 6,700 metres to under 2,000 metres as conditions in the final two-thirds of the course deteriorated.

The organisers do not want a repeat of the 2014 HoRR which was cancelled mid-race.

A total of 363 crews had entered and most of the 35 foreign entries will already be in London. There were twelve entries from Ireland, nine from Germany, seven from Switzerland, two from Portugal and one each from Norway, France, Italy, Poland and the United States.

On 22 March, rower and BBC meteorologist, @JenBartram, posted this low tech but helpful graphic. By 24 March, the forecast was for 17 mph / 27 kph east-north-east winds. Following the cancellation announcement, Bartram tweeted: ‘I think this is understandable – northeasterly wind a very tricky direction against tide on this course. Must be a difficult decision.’

Since 1926 and apart from the war years, 1940-1945, the race has only been cancelled three times (1937, 2004 and 2013) and abandoned twice (2007 and 2014). Inevitably, Twitter had a small number of comments from rowers who thought that they were hard enough to cope with any conditions and who disparaged the hard working people who undertake the thankless and monumental task of running a race for 3,600 people on a living river. I doubt that any of these keyboard critics have have ever actually organised such an event themselves or have any significant Tideway experience. Mature grown-ups take disappointment in a clam and reasoned way – the rest react like surly teenagers.

Tolerable conditions at Putney before the start of the 2014 HoRR. The water unexpectedly cut up after the race started.

The Veterans’ (Masters’) Head of the River, always held on the day after the HoRR, is, at the time of writing, still on. The organisers have posted this on @vetshead:

The Vets Head organising committee are closely monitoring conditions. At this point though our race is still on. 

Following problems with their more vulnerable crews in previous years, the Vets race with the flood (incoming) tide on a short course from Hammersmith to Mortlake:

We are racing on the flood tide which should mitigate some of the problems with the E/NE wind. We will people informed of any developments.

There will be no outing to a victory party this year for HoRR founder, Steve Fairbairn. The bust is the trophy awarded to the fastest crew. ‘Steve’ held that, ‘It is not a race, it is merely a means of getting crews to do long rows.’


  1. Although the Head of the River Race was cancelled in 1937, the cancellation was over a month before the race. Because of awkward tides, the organising committee had decided that the only feasible date for the race was Sunday March 21st. The ARA were, however, implacably opposed to Sunday racing. At an emergency meeting in February the ARA committee refused permission for the race to be held on the proposed date.

  2. Didn’t W.Churchill say something about consulting ‘men in the know’ that all you got was the ‘sum of all their fears’.

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